Should Type 1 Diabetes Be in Public School Curricula?

Two D-moms want students to learn about the autoimmune condition in health and science classes.



Photo Credit: Terry Pierson, Riverside Press-Enterprise/SCNG

There are a lot of misconceptions about Type 1 diabetes—for instance, that is lifestyle-related and that it is easy to control with diet and exercise. As numerous advocates have argued, such misinformation is not harmless, since popular opinion has the potential to significantly shape public policy. Advocates have tended to highlight the media’s role in perpetuating myths about the condition, calling upon public figures to differentiate between the two types of diabetes and to avoid making diabetes a punchline.

Two D-moms in California have another idea: putting the burden on public schools to better educate students about the autoimmune disease. Debbie George and Michelle Thornburg founded the organization EASE T1D (education, awareness, support and empowerment) to raise awareness about the risks, warning signs, and symptoms of Type 1 diabetes among youth, whose knowledge and opinions about diabetes are still forming.

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EASE T1D has teamed up with the California-based Beyond Type 1 to create curricula for California schools, which would supplement and improve existing material on diabetes. Currently, instructors are not required to teach about diabetes in secondary schools. If an instructor does teach the subject, the material is at his or her discretion.

George told Insulin Nation that, in her son’s school district, diabetes (as a generic condition) is taught in seventh-grade science classes and ninth- and tenth-grade health classes with decade-old textbooks. Because instructors do not distinguish between the metabolic and autoimmune conditions, students are prone to mistake the two types. This can lead to students’ stigmatizing peers with the disease, as well as undiagnosed incidents of Type 1 diabetes. In turn, undiagnosed Type 1 diabetes can result in life-threatening Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA).

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George knows this all too well. Her own son, now sixteen, was misdiagnosed twice as an infant, nearly dying from complications related to his Type 1 diabetes. Given these sorts of realities, it is clear how inadequate school curricula contributes to a serious public health risk.

This past year, George and Thornburg gained the support of California Senator Jeff Stone, who is working to put two bills on Type 1 diabetes education on the docket for the state legislature in early 2019. The founders had hoped that the two bills would appear on this year’s docket, but were told that state officials first needed to investigate what it would cost California to implement the laws. According to George, the primary costs have already been covered, since Beyond Type 1 is developing the curricula, and the materials would be distributed using the school system’s existing platform (Canvas).

In the meantime, EASE T1D is staying busy with other campaigns to increase awareness. “We’re out there,” says George. She, Thornburg, their children, and other representatives of the organization regularly appear at PTA meetings, Chamber of Commerce gatherings, and other speaking events to spread the word about Type 1 diabetes and the work that they are doing. These individuals are also active at JDRF walks and other advocacy events.

The organization has also created and distributed approved flyers to many of the public schools in the state. These posters share basic information about Type 1 diabetes, and they’ve already had a huge impact. According to George, a mother in San Diego recognized her daughter’s symptoms and sought medical attention, and the daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes before complications developed. The founder also says that she frequently hears from parents, who report that their children came home from school quoting certain facts about the condition. (This was after a JDRF walk that was organized in one of the elementary schools.)

Both George’s son and Thornburg’s daughter attend Santiago High School in Corona. This school has been especially receptive to the organization’s efforts. This past year, during National Diabetes Awareness Month, Santiago allowed the PADRE Foundation (an Orange County based non-profit with which EASE T1D collaborates) the opportunity to be a guest speaker to give a presentation to all health and physical education classes on the differences between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

There are 23 students at Santiago High School with Type 1 diabetes, and many of these students have supported EASE T1D by sharing information and “going public” with their condition. In fact, they were recently the subject of a local news story. The Press-Enterprise profiled athletes and “students thriving with Type 1 diabetes” at Santiago. This story was the first of its kind in that publication.

If you want to learn more about the organization, visit their website at https://www.easet1d.org.

Do you have an idea you would like to write about for Insulin Nation? Send your pitch to submissions@insulinnation.com.

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Audrey Farley is a D-mom and the Editor of Insulin Nation. Before joining IN, she taught literature and composition at University of Maryland, College Park, where she earned a PhD in English. She is currently working on a historical novel about one of the first patients to receive insulin shortly after its discovery in 1921. You can follow her on Twitter @AudreyCFarley.